The Pornification of Netflix Continues With ‘Sex/Life’

·8-min read

This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.

There was a time last summer, pretty much exactly a year ago, when everyone was basically watching porn on Netflix.

The kinky soft-core international series 365 Days, which Daily Beast critic Nick Schager called “a Polish Fifty Shades of Grey,” became a sensation. It spawned debate about its controversial storyline and the abusive nature of its sex scenes—but also inspired a few “everyone be quiet so I can watch my explicit sex scenes in peace” retorts.

Then Gaspar Noé’s 2015 film Love somewhat inexplicably became the service’s most-watched movie. Not only does the move feature multiple unsimulated sex scenes, it opens with its leading man being masturbated by his female co-star’s nipple until he eventually ejaculates, his erect penis pointed at the camera as he orgasms into the lens. Cinema, baby! (When it premiered, this was all in 3D…)

There were several reasons why the film surged to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list—there was a viral TikTok challenge where people would film themselves watching the opening scene in shock. But the lesson was learned: People like watching sex on Netflix.

The pearl-clutching tenor of surprise and snickering whenever there’s a phenomenon like this can be patronizing and shaming. Remember the “mommy porn” discussion when the Fifty Shades sensation hinted that middle-aged women actually have sexual desires? It was demeaning.

Still, if the mind-blowing revelation that people like sex, are sometimes horny, and sometimes like to watch hot people have it—or at least simulate having it in movies or TV—can be accepted as fact, it’s interesting to figure out where that fits into this idea of what Netflix is as a brand, and what people turn to it for.

It’s been comfort-watch central, with audiences making a blockbuster hit out of Schitt’s Creek and, over the years, resurging the relevance of shows like The Office, Friends, and Gilmore Girls.

It’s elevated itself as a hub of prestige content to rival the likes of HBO, where eye-popping production and marketing budgets are devoted to shows like The Crown and creators like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes are wooed with massive deals. Its craven desire to be the destination for Oscar-friendly awards fare has become one of the dominant entertainment stories in recent years.

But where does the sex fit into it all?

Watch: Sex is a human right

Like most of us and sex, Netflix doesn’t really talk about it, almost as if to say, “Who knows how all those sexy shows got to the top of the most-watched list?” (People have long suspected that there are certain algorithms that impact that list.)

But now, the service seems to be leaning into the hornier part of its brand. Whereas Love and 365 Days were outside productions that Netflix acquired, the streamer is finally producing a similar show itself, the sexual soap opera Sex/Life, which premieres Friday.

The series stars Sarah Shahi as a mother who seems to have it all, and recognizes the cliché of it. She’s married to the nicest man in the world (played by Mike Vogel), who happens to be rich and an absolute hunk, like someone brought to life a Ken doll. But the house in Greenwich, Connecticut, the kids, the “perfect life”… it’s starting to bore her. She starts fantasizing about when she was in her twenties, a sexual free spirit whose world was rocked on a daily basis by a music producer bad boy (Adam Demos).

When he unexpectedly re-enters her life, she begins journaling explicit memories of all their wild sex, which play out in flashbacks. Her husband finds this, reads it, and takes it as a challenge, torn between not recognizing the woman in these stories and using her detailed recollections as an instruction manual to get her off himself. She, too, becomes torn between her old life and the one she has now.

Forget all that plot stuff, though. The point is, there’s sex. So much of it. There’s a rare, very sensual female gaze to it all, with Shahi’s co-stars naked just as often as she is and her pleasure the focus of the camera lens. At one point, there is a penis reveal that triggered a full-body physical reaction: I yelped, fell off the couch, and afterward had to take some blood pressure medicine. In other words, all those sex-obsessed Netflix subscribers will love it.

What I appreciate about Sex/Life is how fully it leans into what it is: a soap opera rooted in explicit sex. It will be popular because, as we’ve learned, streaming sex is popular. But unlike something like Bridgerton, the sex aspect isn’t dressed up in a series that telegraphs some loftier, classier ambition. It’s all boobies, butts, and orgasms.

Is it good? Not always. But it’s competent enough at what’s doing—sexual escapism—that you don’t mind performing satisfaction in return.

I don’t know what it is about this last week in particular, but everything made me cranky. Every day was a constant stream of news items that me groan “for fuck’s sake,” slam my laptop shut and walk away.

Maybe there’s something astrological to it. Maybe it’s because it was so hot and humid that I felt like I was living in the armpit of Hades after he took a Crossfit class and mainlined a Taco Bell party platter. Or maybe I’m just an irredeemable ornery grouch.

Either way, here are some things that I had absolutely no patience for this week.

All the revelations about how obviously shitty producers on The Bachelor were to people of color that Rachel Lindsay revealed in a New York magazine tell-all. Nick Cannon fathering four children in one year with three different women. The fact that Olivia Rodrigo only graduated high school this week, news that added about seven new wrinkles to my forehead.

The paparazzi photos of Erika Jayne pumping gas without her usual $40,000-a-month glam on, and then her claiming some sort of feminist hero narrative in response. The trailer for a horror film titled Karen, about a racist busybody named Karen who terrorizes a Black family that moves to the neighborhood. This original New York Times headline to a story about NFL player Carl Nassib coming out as gay.

The whole vibe of this viral photo, where a woman stages a photo op on a hiking trail with a sign that says, “Into the woods we go, because kids won’t remember their best day of television.” Trump apparently wanting the Justice Department to stop SNL from being too mean to him. Avril Lavigne joining TikTok looking as if she hasn’t aged a day in the last 20 years, adding yet seven more wrinkles to my forehead.

Finally, this photo of Justin and Hailey Bieber with Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron. I can’t quite explain why, but I just know that it is cursed.

The Good Fight Is Back, Once Again Very Good

The season five premiere of The Good Fight was this week on Paramount+, making perhaps the best case yet to subscribe to Paramount+. Because the show has been historically so astoundingly good, perhaps it’s not a surprise that the premiere finds a way to cycle through a bullet-point list of all the traumas of the last year—COVID-19, George Floyd’s murder, the insurrection—and mirror back not just the horror, but also the fever-dream delirium it felt like to go through it.

There’s a lot to unpack, but there is one scene that I may never forget, that I have played in my mind on a loop ever since I watched the screener. The divine Christine Baranski as Diane Lockhart is explaining to the law firm how teleconferencing will work during the pandemic shutdown, telling them all to download a program “called” (Watch the clip.)

In other words, you better believe that Christine Baranski says “Zoom dot com” is the song of the summer.

Her Pride Will Go On and On

<div class="inline-image__credit">Twitter</div>

With all due respect to the many well-intentioned and inspiring acknowledgments of LGBT Pride that various celebrities and allies have made this month, the only pride message that matters is the one Céline Dion posted of herself serving a rainbow of high-fashion looks. Rumors are this is now the new pride flag.

Zola: The unbelievable story “about why me and this bitch here fell out.” (Wed. in theaters)

Below Deck Mediterranean: The only things certain in life are death, taxes, and that a new season of Below Deck is airing. (Mon. on Bravo)

Top Chef Amateurs: I am already mourning the impending end of the greatest season of Top Chef yet, and this Queen Gail-hosted spinoff is the only thing getting me through. (Thurs. On Bravo)

The Ice Road: Liam Neeson as a grizzled action star? What a concept! Never could have imagined it. Truly original. (Fri. on Netflix)

TMZ Investigates: UFOs: The Pentagon Proof: The title of this TV special just gave me an aneurysm. (Tues. on Fox)

Watch: Disability and sex

Why Did It Take So Long to Believe Britney Spears?

Read more at The Daily Beast.

Get our top stories in your inbox every day. Sign up now!

Daily Beast Membership: Beast Inside goes deeper on the stories that matter to you. Learn more.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting